Forget Super Bowl rings and shiny gold medals. Today’s eSports champions are scoring massive million-dollar prize pools as spectators from around the world watch them game.
Also known as broadcasters, these competitors aren’t just greasy teenagers penned up in a dark bedroom—they’re well-trained, driven game gurus who don’t miss a beat when they’re called on to play center stage in front of a jam-packed stadium that sold out almost as quickly as a Taylor Swift concert.
Like other organized sports, these players have sponsors, coaches, teams, and practice schedules. They train hard and create cutting-edge strategies. They suffer upsets and enjoy exhilarating wins.
Perhaps you find it hard to reconstruct your notion of an athlete to consider a gamer with his or her fingers wriggling across a controller, but eSports are forcing us to rethink traditional sports at a growing rate. If you’re new to the trend, or just want to get a better understanding of what eSports are and who’s playing them, keep reading as we break down the five most important things you should know about eSports.
1. It’s not a one-game-fits-all sport.
Unlike the NFL or MLB where athletes play a single sport with set rules, eSports athletes compete in a variety of game types. MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games like League of Legends and Dota 2, and FPS (first-person shooter) games like Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), Call of Duty, and Halo are some of the most popular games to play professionally.
Yet almost any game where players compete can become an eSports game. Strategy games like StarCraft II and Hearthstone are also gamer favorites.
Yet not all eSports games are equally lucrative; each tournament is centered around a specific game (or games), drawing varying levels of viewers and prize pools. At The International 2015, players competed in Dota 2 for a prize pool of more than $18 million. That same year, teams competed at BlizzCon World Championships, playing in World of Warcraft Arena for a prize pool of $250,000.
Professional gamer Hai Lam, known for playing League of Legends, retired from eSports at age 20 due to a wrist injury.
2. Players are a lot like traditional athletes.
Sure, they’re not scoring on astroturf end zones or shooting hoops from shiny basketball courts, but eSports players are more like traditional athletes than you think. Like baseball players, they spend hours each day practicing their craft both on their own and as a team. Hockey players might watch footage from their opponent’s past games; eSports broadcasters study other teams’ strategies and formulate “plays” and methodologies to defeat them.
With the many tournaments now held all over the world (not to mention the demands of broadcasting online to score high-paying sponsorship deals), players often keep grueling schedules that require frequent travel.
In addition to training like professional athletes, pro gamers also face career-ending sports injuries. Some of the biggest names in eSports have retired over the last few years, blaming carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, trigger finger, and nerve-tingling neck pain. Reports show that these injuries are often overlooked and on the rise among eSports broadcasters.
3. Pro gaming is a worldwide phenomenon.
eSports sprang up in the late 1990s in Korea, and have since spread across the world. Right now, Asia leads the eSports market with over $321 million in revenue, with North America trailing behind by about $100 million. At ESL One, the world’s largest CS:GO tournament, teams came from Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Germany, USA, France, and Brazil to compete.
With the addition of new streaming platforms, viewers can easily tune in to watch gameplay from anywhere in the world. On Twitch, the leading video platform and gamer community, users spend more than 79 million hours each month watching broadcasters play.
4. eSports will become a $1.2 billion market.
Factor in all of the players, coaches, sponsors, game creators, and advertisers, and you’ve got an eSports industry that’s flooded with moolah. So where’s the money coming from? While prize pools represent significant cash, most of the money comes from sponsors and advertisers.
Coca-Cola has a shiny deal with Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends. Doritos, Red Bull, YouTube, Microsoft, and many other big-name companies are also claiming a stake in the eSports industry. Companies can host events, run tournaments, pay for brand placement, or sponsor teams and athletes, gaining visibility in one of the fastest growing industries.
Professional sports stars Rick Fox and Rodger Saffold (respectively) both own eSports teams.
5. Traditional sports stars are taking notice.
While some people find it a stretch to refer to controller-wielding competitors as true “athletes,” even traditional sports players are paying attention to major league gaming. It's just one of the ways technology is changing sports.
Rick Fox, three-time NBA champion who played for the Lakers and Celtics, bought the eSports team Gravity at the end of 2015. Rodger Saffold, an offensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, owns the eSports team Rise Nation, which earned a spot at the Call of Duty Championship.
When asked about his ownership of the team, he said:
...we started streaming our gameplay on the internet. Next thing you know, people are like, ‘Hey you should form your own team.’
We started playing around with names, and we got some of the graphic designers from the Rams to help me design the logo. We ended up picking up a team and then they went to the world championship (Call of Duty Championship). It was huge and they just took off.
In addition to NFL, MLB, and NBA athletes and team owners heading up eSports teams, other influential people are also buying into the trend. According to the Los Angeles Times, “China’s richest man, Russia’s richest man, and the U.S.’s fourth-richest man” are all connected to an eSports team.
6. The games are constantly evolving.
Consider American football, the most popular sport in our country right now. While slight changes are made to the rules every so often, overall, there’s isn’t much variance to the game.
With eSports, however, variance is key. In addition to having a variety of games to choose from, broadcasters must also learn new games as they are released. As game makers introduce new elements and types of game play, it levels the playing field for seasoned gamers and amateurs, who must both work hard to learn the new rules.
eSports’ ability to adapt and incorporate new games keeps gamers (and spectators!) on their toes. Unlike football and baseball, where a single team with a few star players can dominate year after year, in Major League Gaming, competition moves fast and unexpectedly, making it a thrilling sport for both competitors and viewers.
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